Since writing "Portrait of a Victorian" for the Victorian Web I've come across a record of a conversation with Mrs Newbery in the early 1960s. By then she was a very old lady in her nineties. In Pygmalion, Shaw said accents changed almost from street to street. I don't think so, but certainly different parts of London had slightly different ones. Mrs Newbery's accent was that of Victorian St Pancras, where she was born in the 1870s and where she lived all her life. Her grandparents had been costermongers, presumably close to the time when Mayhew wrote his account of them in the Morning Chronicle. One brother enlisted in the Army, another was a road sweeper employed by the council.
Mrs Newbery lived in a single room on the top floor of a house in (link to footnote) Tolmers Square close to both Euston and Tottenham Court Roads. It was a cold November evening (long before there was even a hint of global warming) with a dense fog. Her room was lit by a gas jet, its mantle glowing white and throwing more shadow than light. Coal burned in the grate. Dinner was cooking on a stove in the corner.
"How are you?" she asked.
"Not too bad, thank you. And you?"
"Isn't cold though?"
"How are you keeping?"
"You're right. Shocking cold."
"He's asking how are you?" her daughter told her.
"How am I? Oh, not too good, thank you. I had a fall. I couldn't get up, you see. Couldn't get up. Not anyhow. Has he got a job?"
"That's good. I say that's good. With the council?"
"He should. My brother Jack was with the council for years and years when he was alive. They gave him a coat and that's a big saving. Christmas ain't what it used to be, is it?"
"No, I don't suppose so."
"You're right. It ain't. All died out. All the singing. All the costers singing. Terrible. It was nice in them days, though. Yes, nice. Nothing will beat the old times, nothing at all. Especially when the winkleman used to come around. Granfer had a little pony and all. He used to go to market for the crabs. Yes, poor old Granny."
"What's he say?"
"He's asking if it was crabs."
"Why, yes, crabs. From Covent Garden. That big shop oppo-site. When I was a kid Granny used to send me round to the public houses selling walnuts. The old Goat public — a load of workmen used to get in there. I was sold out in no times. In no times. Took my empty basket for another load. I don't think them days will ever come back. Do you?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Never come back. Nothing will beat the old times, either, nothing at all. We used to have a laugh in them days. Me and my mate, we was in that oil shop on the corner. We bought hats alike, with a feather in them and of course when we wore them up to Hampstead all of a sudden it pelted down. It poured down. The feather was like a herring bone. And when my mother saw it, she did laugh. I tell you years ago . . . . you forget properly. But the peace was good and the Relief of Mafeking. A crowd of us all marched through, all singing. They got a band up down Charing Cross Road, right down Trafalgar Square. All singing. Oh, they was handing the bottles round. Even my mother had the flowers out of the window and she used to work hard at the wash tub. All altered now. I say it's all altered."
"Yes. It must have."
"What's he say?"
"He says it's all altered."
"He's right. I say you're right. I tell you you wouldn't know the places now. Oppo-site the eel shop, down Neate Street, that's where I worked on time. Me and my mate used to go to the pie shop and have a penny pie. Terrible. They was Sweeney Todd's pies. He had his barber shop in Fleet Street and when men went in for a haircut and shave, he used to cut them up and bake them into pies. Many of them penny pies I've ate. You wouldn't believe it. Terrible. And there was that other feller. The Ripper."
"Jack the Ripper?"
"What's he saying?"
"He's saying Jack the Ripper?"
"Why, yes. The Ripper. Why, he done no end of them in. They used to be all bad women he done in. And they could never catch him. He had one or two of them in a cupboard. What? I used to be frightened, I can tell you. I said I'm not going out tonight, Mum. She said, no, you stop home with me. Oh, there was a rare old paper out every night. 'Nother murder. 'Nother murder. He done the twelve in. We lived in Seaton Street then. Number Six on the top floor, next to Mrs Pritchard's. Mrs Pritchard said she was expecting her daughter to come, and the daughter was in a state. Her husband was very bad in the London Hospital and when she went down to see him, this man got hold of her. She said, oh, please let me go. I'm a respectable woman and my husband's very bad in hospital. Yes, terrible. When you think of the old times, you can't stop. When you think of the old faces. I don't think them days will ever come back. We used to get pease puddings and baked taters in the market in them days. You'd get a good old feed over there. Pease pudding and pork. They used to auction stuff off late at night. Saveloys as well. Saveloys and pease pudding in paper, you could get. A good old feed. Frogs wouldn't stop me hopping."
"I used to go with Aunt Anna, her what had the stall. You used to work hard, too. Terrible. And when it rained, the clay'd take the soles off your boots. They was a lively crowd down there but you was ready to doss down at the end of the day. That's all died out now. We had eight weeks of it. If they was good hops, they'd pay a shilling a bushel. If not, six bushels a shilling. Are you going?"
"No, not just yet."
"Come again tomorrow. It's been a nice old chin wag."
"He's not going yet."
"You're right. They was good old days."
"He's staying for tea."
"That's good. I say that's good. Have you got the taters on?"
- A Washerwoman's Daughter
- Victorian Costermongers: "A Penny Profit out of the Poor Man's Dinner"
- Welsh Dairies in Victorian London
- Lost Victorian London: Tolmers Square and Seaton Market
Last modified 9 February 2007